Readers respond: Is online privacy important?

CNET News.com's Mike Yamamoto says that when it comes to real life, he's willing to make small concessions of civil liberty. Would you? Readers are torn on the issue, and sound off.

CNET News staff
11 min read
Readers respond: Is online privacy irrelevant?

September 25, 2001, 12:20 p.m. PT

CNET News.com's Mike Yamamoto says that when it comes to real life, he's willing to make small concessions of civil liberty. Would you? News.com readers sound off on what they think about online privacy.

Home of the brave, not land of the watched
I have to say I wholeheartedly disagree with Yamamoto's take on giving up some of our civil liberties in the name of security. Most of the "precautions" that have been proposed by our attorney general will do little to stop a terrorist threat from becoming reality. Our civil liberties and freedom make us Americans. Why should we give up the freedoms that make us different from the rest of the world?

Just because the rest of the world has given up freedoms (such as your random frisking incident in the airport), does that mean we should too? Where does it end once we start down this treacherous slope?

Do you not believe that law enforcement agencies will abuse new power given to them? Maybe not at first, but over time they will abuse them when loopholes are found or the language of the original law is broadened. These transgressions don't all happen at once. They happen over time, and before you are aware it's happening, you've already become accustomed to the loss of certain freedoms you used to enjoy. We as a country cannot take this chance.

The purpose of these attacks is to make us fearful people. It was made to turn us against each other, to not trust our neighbors. They want us to live in fear. They want us to give up that which makes us Americans. I, for one, will not stand for this, because if we do, then we have lost what makes us a unique people and country.

I can't say that I know what we need in this country to fight the threat of terrorism on our soil, but I do know that sacrificing my freedoms is not one of the ways I'm willing to fight it. If people want to live under the scrutiny of constant surveillance and government infiltration into their lives, then they can move to Europe or one of the countries that make this their practice.

Remember, America is the land of the free and the home of the brave, not the land of the watched and the home of the fearful.

Mike Bosch
San Francisco

Safety is important; so is liberty
I agree that Americans have been spoiled by their unparalleled sense of security in the past 100 years or so, that companies providing services must tighten security, and that that tightening can include apparent intrusions into our privacy.

However, I believe that you failed to make a distinction between safety practices of service providers, like airlines and our loss of civil liberties to the government. When a company institutes a more restrictive or intrusive policy, customers can choose to go to a competitor, not use the service at all, or even go to the courts for a remedy.

The most effective way to change corporate policy is, of course, through market forces. (Don't like the airlines policies--don't fly commercial.) However, the U.S. government has a terrible history of incrementally taking citizens' rights and replacing them with safety or social programs. The framers of the Constitution understood that government by its nature will grow, amassing more power, more control over our lives, and an increasing percentage of GNP.

I think it's important to differentiate between a private company instituting safety policies and the government reading all of our correspondence, listening to phone conversations, bugging our homes, or any other extrapolation of e-mail tapping. For this reason, the framers of the Constitution included that any rights not expressly given to the government are reserved for the states or the people.

Safety is important, but so is liberty. I think we can have both.

George Harter
Raleigh, N.C.

Don't dismiss Fourth Amendment as "theory"
Orwellian fears stem from the idea that the government will, at some point, use the power it has amassed over the years to ultimately subjugate its own citizenry. The idea is that if we stop the small steps now, we don't have to be trampled by the large steps later. Yamamoto states that today's discussions regarding online privacy are irrelevant to "real life." Perhaps he is simply being shortsighted.

With e-mail supplanting the U.S. Postal Service, the Web becoming a global retailer ready to serve the remotest of locations, and cell phones replacing the landlines we have all grown up with, it seems to be that online privacy is becoming "real life."

So let's assume that we give the government full permission to read our e-mail. Since this will undoubtedly become the main form of letter-based communication, should we not, then, also extend this intrusion into "real life" and allow the government to scan and store every piece of physical mail we send?

Should the government build backdoors into every implementation of SSL so that it can monitor all purchases made online, looking for any items that might be used in a terrorist act? Woe unto anyone starting a shipping business that needs a crate of box cutters.

When talking about online privacy, it is important to take into account the far-reaching effects that the shortsighted, impassioned, reactionary legislation of today can have on the society of tomorrow. We may all live long and productive lives, but you have to ask yourself, "Is a long life more important than a private life?"

It would have been helpful if Yamamoto had addressed "how far is too far" in his article. The reference to "theoretical arguments about the Fourth Amendment" implies that the government can never go too far in providing a sense of security. Mind you, a "sense" of security. Threats exist both within and without this nation. Far more people die from smoking, drinking and auto accidents every year than perished in the Sept. 11 tragedy. And some freedoms were restricted to address those issues; many areas restrict smoking, there is a minimum drinking age, and a number of states have mandated seatbelt and vehicle inspection laws.

But none of those reach as far into expression as the possibility of having your e-mail monitored. When your thoughts are fodder for a keyword-driven search engine, you start to change your thoughts to avoid being picked out for investigation. Law enforcement and national security should be limited to dealing with the actions of people, not their thoughts.

If Yamamoto wants to rid the world of evil, I suggest he look to the sources for difference and strife that cause insurrections instead of looking to advocate that governments read the thoughts of their citizenry by perusing their mail, electronic or otherwise. Though, admittedly, it's far easier to fix by restricting societies than to solve by restructuring them.

Travis Prebble
State College, Pa.

Don't surrender privacy
I would like to take exception with Yamamoto with regard to privacy and American citizenry. There are always those who are willing to surrender things for the perception of security, and I, too, am willing to exchange a thing of lesser value for something greater. Having said that, though, I would oppose any such measure that would give my life, my associations, and my communications freely to the government.

I am a veteran of the Persian Gulf war and served for a total of 13 years in the U.S. Army and the National Guard. I believe strongly in America, and in our Constitution. If one is to be innocent until proven guilty, then how at the same time can you justify claiming that everyone is guilty until the innocence of their communication has been proven?

Let us not forget that the "bad guys" are using secure communications that are difficult if not impossible to read.

The effect of this is to intrude on the citizenry, and all the while the "bad guys" are freely plotting. This is no answer. We have the constitutional obligation to protect American citizens against unreasonable search and seizure. We have the constitutional obligation to protect American citizens from a government that secretly spies on us without warrant or probable cause. This is deeper than "security" and far deeper that "safety."

Many men and women have given their lives for the very constitutional rights we talk about surrendering. Ironically, the immense powers that were the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Great Britain and others could not force us to submission, and they most certainly could not force us to suspend the constitution. Yet they have suddenly been surpassed by a ragtag group of zealots who, after the smoke clears, will not see a line in the history books. Interesting.

In conclusion, I would like to say that Ronald Reagan was (and still is) correct in saying that a powerful, professional, and well-paid military is the only key to American security. I watched (as did millions) the Berlin Wall collapse into rubble, and freedom was felt for the first time in those East Germans' generation. It was exhilarating.

There will never be world peace. There will always be those who seek domination. It is our place to defend against those who would undo freedom, and it is our place to eradicate evil. Anyone who believes that evil can be halted by making sure that free men are restrained believes the same lies that German Nazis believed.

Michael Fischer
Lexington, Ky.

Online privacy debate not irrelevant
"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
--Benjamin Franklin, Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759

I'm sorry, Mike, but I can't bite my tongue here. You're advocating curtailing civil liberties based on the arguments that "it's not so bad" and "other countries have less freedom than us." Yet you don't consider the effects of those concessions, the differences between cultures, and the types of freedoms involved, nor even how the proposed measures would improve our safety.

First, you argue that "we already accept some measure of online disclosure." This doesn't convince me that a little more wouldn't hurt. Rather, it's a warning flag that we're already slipping down the slope of government control. Regulations such as a national ID card are more than a small, incremental change. Other sorts of disclosure are optional.

For example, there is no mandate that I use Amazon.com (which collects some information about customers); I can choose to take my business to a brick-and-mortar outlet and pay cash. The new proposals must be inescapable to be effective.

The fact that it's unavoidable is critical. Suppose that I was active in the protests at the WTO meeting and Democratic Convention last year. It's likely that I'd be branded a "troublemaker." Then, when I wanted to protest at some other hot spot (say, the farmers put out of business in Klamath Falls), the FBI wouldn't let me get on a plane--or a train or a bus, either. They say that since I'm a troublemaker, and clearly on my way to a protest, the safety of the community demands that my transportation be denied.

This seems to be the goal of these proposals, but in fact what would happen is that my right to protest would be curtailed.

Second, you introduce Fourth Amendment arguments (protecting against unwarranted searches). But that seems to be a straw man, as you follow up with an incident concerning caning in Singapore. This is surely an interesting point, but the topic of the severity of punishment is wholly unrelated to the question of whether our privacy should be intruded upon. Indeed, the proposals I've seen for a "national ID card" are a form of prior restraint--it subjects innocent citizens, suspected of no wrongdoing, to regulation "just in case"--and this sort of thing is generally proscribed.

From everything you've written, I get the impression that you feel the Constitution is a stuffy old document written by old timers wearing powdered wigs; it's worked OK since, so we definitely should consider its content as a strong suggestion for how to legislate, but those old-time farmers couldn't have foreseen today's world, so we can't take their documents so literally.

It seems that you're of the opinion that America is a democracy, and that the will of the people must prevail. In fact, America is not a democracy, it's a constitutional republic. A democracy allows the majority to oppress the minority. Our Constitution limits the degree to which that can happen--and the greater the degree of erosion of those controls, the greater the degree to which the minority is oppressed.

This may sound like an abstract warning, but the problems are there already. From murder of scores of innocent people by jackbooted thugs at Waco (where the government's search warrant was blank, another Fourth Amendment violation) to environmentalists preventing landowners from building a house, this nation is filled with those trying--and succeeding--to eliminate those with differing points of view or lifestyles.

Chris Wuestefeld
Milford, N.J.

Sacrificing privacy is nothing new
I strongly agree that Americans must sacrifice some of their perceived notions of privacy in exchange for greater security, especially since the stakes are so high: It is conceivable that terrorists will bring the Hantavirus, Ebola, smallpox, anthrax or other weapons of mass destruction like suitcase nukes in the future. While these threats might be remote (I am not savvy enough to know how realistic of a threat they are), the results would be so catastrophic that severe preventive measures are called for.

Furthermore, I also strongly believe that people have misinterpreted the Big Brother threat. Big Brother is only a problem when you live under an oppressive government. American citizens will continue to have lawyers, laws, the courts, legislature, free speech, free press, elections, congressional oversight committees, and so on, to safeguard the rights of Americans. As the government will be the ones carrying out the monitoring, this information will not be sold to corporate interests, either.

Sacrificing privacy for safety also has precedent in our society. Virtually all Americans already voluntarily hand over an abundance of private medical information to their primary doctors and medical institutions so that they can be treated for their ailments.

I will be greatly saddened if more people die because of the misguided fears and paranoia of a portion of the American citizenry.

Ted Halmrast
Eden Prairie, Minn.

Hijacked planes vs. cyberprivacy? No contest
I absolutely agree with your editorial about the minuscule price we may pay in privacy as opposed to security. I've always believed that those so preoccupied about privacy from government monitoring and the like are those who typically have something to hide. I don't.

If the CIA, FBI or NSA wanted to waste their time tracking what I do on the Net, fine. Knock yourselves out, I'd say. My only recommendation is that they not waste their time with someone like me. I got nothing to hide.

This also extends to other areas of surveillance. I have no problem whatsoever with video cameras above streets, malls, restaurants, or stadiums or arenas. After all, how are any of the above an invasion of privacy? When you walk into a football stadium with 40,000 other people you are in a very public place. No invasion of privacy there or at a traffic light, either. It's a public road. I get so tired of all this "invasion of privacy" crap.

My concern is to avoid being on a hijacked plane, or blown up while walking past or inside a government building or any building, or dying from some germ warfare virus, or being nuked. The more security there is, the safer and more free I actually feel. At least now.

What I worry about, however, is that after a few years of heightened security, the government will start getting lazy and complacent again, making us vulnerable to some kind of attack. Maybe we should make the most of our travel now while security is improving instead of going downhill.

Marshal Ray
Bowling Green, Ky.